Where Have All the Feminists Gone?

I came into my feminist destiny in 1967, both as an academic and as an activist. Our original feminist vision was radical and transformative. We believed in universal human rights. We envisioned multicultural diversity but we were not multicultural relativists. We called out misogyny when we saw it and did not exempt a rapist, a wife-beater, or a pedophile because he was poor (his victims were also usually poor), or was a man of color (his victims were often people of color), or had an abused childhood (so had his victims).

Like other American radical feminists, I was active in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Unlike other feminists, I had “once lived in a harem in Afghanistan.” This is the opening line of my book, An American Bride in Kabul. Quite unexpectedly, I lived in a polygamous household in very posh purdah—which meant I was not allowed out without a male escort. Quite surprisingly, my father-in-law had three wives and 21 children—facts my Westernized husband failed to mention during our long American college courtship.

When I was 20, I saw Afghan women stumbling around in burqas—sensory-deprivation isolation chambers, ambulatory body bags. These ghosts were forced to sit at the back of the bus. This was long before the Taliban arose. I remembered that sight even when I critiqued American sexism, racism, homophobia—and imperial overreach.

Between 1967 and 1975, I joined the National Organization for Women (NOW), went to meetings, joined a CR group and a class-action lawsuit, founded women’s studies at CUNY, co-founded the Association for Women in Psychology—and the National Women’s Health Network. In 1970, I delivered a fiery speech at the annual American Psychological Association meeting in Florida. I demanded reparations for the women who had been misdiagnosed, pathologized, drugged, and institutionalized by the psychological and psychiatric professions. Two-thousand people laughed at me—but nervously. Some accused me of “penis envy.”

I began writing what would become Women and Madness on the plane back to New York. My speech made world headlines. I was deluged by publishing offers. At the end of 1972, Adrienne Rich reviewed the book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. My book became a bestseller, a “landmark,” a classic.

In the early to late 1970s, I delivered feminist speeches in Israel, began working with Israeli feminists; led a delegation of left-wing and feminist journalists to Israel; obtained signatures opposing the UN’s “Zionism=racism” resolution; co-organized a press conference and then a legendary conference about feminism and anti-Semitism and about women and Judaism; co-founded the first feminist Passover Seder which we held in my Manhattan apartment—and created Jewish-feminist life-cycle events.

I also worked with Muslim dissidents and artists from Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Lebanon, etc. During this time, I published three more feminist books.

In 1981, I convened a panel at the annual meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association in Storrs, Conn., about anti-Semitism and Feminism. For the second time, Aviva Cantor interviewed me for Lilith on this very subject. However, I did not become a professional Jew, I did not turn my Jewish identity or my concern about our survival, into a career or a calling.

Between 1981 and 2002, I researched and published six feminist books. I conducted campaigns on behalf of mothers losing custody, birthmothers being forced to surrender their genetic children against their will (aka surrogacy); a woman’s right to self-defense; and Jewish women’s religious rights in Jerusalem at the Kotel. (Yes, I prayed in the ezrat Nashim that first time in 1988, co-founded the International Committee for Women of the Wall, was a named plaintiff in our original lawsuit, and, after a quarter-century of grassroots and legal struggle, even joined the Original Women of the Wall “Tfilat Nashim Bakotel.”)

I can tell you that anti-Semitism—Jew-hatred—is not new among feminists. I first encountered it in the early 1970s among radical feminists and lesbians and, together with Aviva Cantor and Cheryl Moch, immediately began exposing it.

However, a new and what I describe as a “faux feminism” has arisen in the last 30 years, a postmodern and postcolonial feminism that passionately condemns Christianity and Judaism as the greatest danger to women’s rights but dares not critique religiously supremacist Islam for this same reason; an intersectional “faux feminism” that condemns only Western imperialism and refuses to acknowledge the long history of Islamic imperialism, colonialism, slavery, anti-black racism, and religious and gender apartheid; a “faux feminism” that is far more concerned with the alleged occupation of Palestine than it is with the occupation of women’s bodies, faces, minds, and genitalia world-wide–including those women who are being forcibly face-veiled, death-threatened, and honor killed in the disputed territories.

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Women’s studies associations, national feminist organizations—many feminist Jews—are not merely “politically correct”; they have become “Islamically correct.” They are currently more concerned with the religious sanctity of head and face veiling than they are with FGM, forced face-veiling, honor-based violence, polygamy, child marriage, and honor killing in the West. Not only have faux feminists betrayed the Jews—in the name of anti-racism, they have also abandoned tribal and immigrant women of color—Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus—to barbaric misogyny. Above all, they have abandoned the most heroic ex-Muslim, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu feminist dissidents, both in the developing world and in the West.

And that’s the tragedy—that so many Western feminists have become such conformists. They are no longer independent thinkers. Faux feminists have also been persuaded that Islam is a “race,” not an ideology or a religion; that America’s historic enslavement of black Africans, and South Africa’s apartheid regime, is exactly the same as alleged Israeli discrimination against Arab Palestinians, including Jew-hating bomb makers and terrorists with blood on their hands.

Fundamentalists are trying to destroy what feminists have accomplished.

Feminists in America exposed, condemned, and analyzed rape. We began rape-crisis counseling and changed the laws about rape. Today, Western professional feminists—our women’s studies professors, politicians, journalists, human-rights activists—are not rescuing rape victims in Islamic communities, either in the Middle East or in the West. Feminists are too nervous about being called “Islamophobes,” “racists,” or “colonialists.”

We may not be able to personally, physically, rescue the raped girls of ISIS or Boko Haram. But American feminists can fund those who do; we can also call barbarism (beheading, stoning, crucifixion, public gang-raping, the destruction of our human cultural heritage) by its rightful name. We can finally understand that the leaders—not the people—of Iran and all the Caliphates information are dangerous to America and to a Western way of life. American-style feminism is also on the line.

We can help girls and women who live here and who are being beaten, stalked, and death-threatened by their own families because they refuse to veil or to marry their first cousin. Their blood should not be on our hands. We must create shelters or extended families that understand what honor-based violence is about. We must prosecute honor killers and their accomplices.

The battle for women’s rights is central to the battle for Western values. It is a necessary part of true democracy. Here, then, is exactly where the greatest battle of the 21st century is joined.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum